Review: Guy Fawkes at York Theatre Royal

The title tells us all this is a comedy. Sometimes riotously funny and always fast-moving. I think there is another play in there trying to get out.

By Angie Millard

David Reed is a York born writer and performer so who better to bring this piece of entertainment to the Theatre Royal? He describes Guy Fawkes as a famous failure whose actions are celebrated 400 years later with fireworks and toffee apples but there is more to the story than that and more than two hours later, I left the auditorium a bit saddened.

Guy was born and educated in York at St Peters and it is noteworthy that the school banned his effigy being burnt on a bonfire, which offers him the respect so often missing from stories of his life.

It is also important to remember that Guy Fawkes was one of the Northern English Catholics who were opposed to James 1st and his oppression of their religion. However, having stated that, it is hard to sidestep the comedy of the mishandled plot to blow up the houses of Parliament and the production makes much of this.

There is an Edinburgh fringe feeling to the play that echoes Reed’s past as part of the multi-award winning Penny Dreadfuls. It has been described as a mix of Monty Python meets Blackadder but I definitely detected some Dad’s Army too. The director, Gemma Fairlie, handles the comedy well but how does the sad part of the play find its place in her vision?

The audience on opening night found the bungling plotters and their dark hero very funny and the comic roles soon became obvious. Cassie Vallance, as Fawkes lost love, settled into the role of Queenie from Blackadder and later in the play she was able to segue into a more serious character. Greg Haiste as her rich husband blustered and bullied his way forward, while Robin Simpson, as Catesby, ‘masterminded the plan’.  We had Jamie Subairi as Fawkes former effeminate school chum, and Andrew Pollard, the old dreamer who dressed as a bear to act as a diversion. But it became clear that Guy Fawkes, played with political fervour and strength by David Reed (the author of the play), had a separate agenda. He was a foil to the other plotter’s jokes but it was as if he was in an entirely different play.

In the scene set beneath parliament, surrounded by 36 barrels of gunpowder, he told Catesby that all he needed were six barrels to blow the building sky high and kill everyone. This simple statement laid bare the brutality of his plan. We were no longer watching a comedy. Even the subsequent, comic duel with Thomas Percy can’t quite block that realisation. 

Martha, his former love, tries to reason with Fawkes in a truly heartbreaking scene. Finally, we understand the passion driving Fawkes which is totally political, helped by an unflinching memory of watching the brutal execution of Margaret Clitheroe who is a York martyr.

The scenery is beautifully designed and realised and the costumes superb, and the comic business possible, with a woman in a farthingale, was fully exploited. However, when I left the theatre I could only wish that David Reed had written the true and tragic life of Guy Fawkes. He is an accomplished actor and I would love to see that performance.

Guy Fawkes was performed at York Theatre Royal on Monday 1 November 2022, and runs to 12 November 2022. The director is Gemma Fairlie and writer is David Reed.


Guy Fawkes: David Reed

Robert Catesby: Robin Simpson

Kit Wright: Jamie Zubairi

Thomas Winter: Andrew Pollard

Thomas Percy: Greg Haiste

Martha Perct (nee Wright): Cassie Vallance


Costume and set design: Carla Goodman

Lighting Design: Tim Mascall

Composer and Sound Designer: Eamonn O’Dwyer

Fight Director: Kev McCurdy